MOVIE REVIEW: “Astro Boy” (2009)

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED 10/27/09

I’ll admit right up front that I’m not really familiar with Astro Boy. I know he’s a hugely popular Japanese character, and has been since the early 1950s, I know that there have been many cartoon and manga (or as they call it in Japan, “Comics”) iterations of him over the last half century, and I know that a lot of people are fanatical about him. I’ve even seen a few minutes of cartoons here and there over the years, and I recognized him on a poster in one of the later episodes of Macross/Robotech (In the newstand the three Zentradi spies are running)

I don’t know anything *about* him, though, other than he’s a Robot and he flies around in big red boots and black underwear. I don’t know his backstory, origins, the major high-points of his career, the supporting characters (Though there’s a little round-headed guy who’s hypocratically bald and has a ludicrously large nose who turns up a lot), I got nothing on any of that. While this might be a problem in the hands of a less talented, or even a less arrogant reviewer, however, I have decided that this actually makes me uniquely suited to review this film. Why? Because in this instance, I’m *not* a fan boy, I don’t have a zillion expectations that it can’t possibly look up to, I’m a feeble newb, a dane, who can just take the story as it is and tell you if it works or not, rather than get caught up about internal continuity, changes to the characters, or the fact that they totally ignored the hoobajoooba aliens of hoobajoobulon-H, who played such a massive role in the development of the supporting character who turns up half way through this story, who couldn’t have logically been in this film. I’m not the guy who’s going to bitch and moan about how Alicia Silverstone’s origin as Batgirl differed from the comics, ok?

So with that firmly established, let’s take a look:

PLAY BY PLAY

At some point in the Not Too Distant Future, the city of Metro City sees the world going to hell, so they decide to move. Through some unexplained process, they take their entire city, and the central mountain it’s built around, up a couple miles in to the air, where they live a utopian Hugo Gernsback kind of existence, with Robots doing everything, and humans, you know, just kind of living their great big fat, dumb, happy Laputan existence. When robots get old, or break, or whatever, just chuck ‘em over the side. Over the next century, the city has fallen out of touch with the ground, and no one really cares what’s going on down there, though they assume it’s nasty.

Toby is a boy genius, son of the adult genius who runs the Ministry of Science. Toby’s dad is a jerk. Neglectful, inattentive, distant, obsessed with work. He quite literally phones it in as a parent. Toby gets out of school early one day, and goes to visit his dad at work, where they’re demonstrating a new weapon, “The Peacekeeper” for the president of Metro City. The Peacekeeper bot is powered by a mystical doubletalk energy source called “The Blue Core,” which is good, and which is antithetical to the “Red Core,” which is basically the Loc Nar http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heavy_Metal_(film)
of energy sources. All evil and stuff. The Red-Core powered by the wrong energy source, goes amok, and kills Toby.

Didn’t see that coming!

Toby’s dad is inconsolable, or he would be if Nicholas Cage had any emotional range in his voice, but, of course, he’s still phoning it in. He doesn’t eat or sleep for several days, and he builds himself an exact robotic replica of Toby. Then he takes one of Toby’s hairs, and uses that to reconstitute Toby’s body and all his memories. Powered by the stolen “Blue Core”, Toby wakes up and thinks he’s a real boy, but he quickly runs afoul of his dad’s attempts to home school him, and his dad once again slides in to full-on jerk mode, saying that he’s made a terrible mistake, and when he sees the ‘bot, he only thinks of his dead son, and can’t bear him around. Toby, meanwhile, has discovered his superhero powers, and is all giddy with flight and strength and stuff, arriving just in time to hear his dad say that he doesn’t love him, and in fact he’s not even human.

Didn’t see that coming, either!

Running off to think, Toby is attacked by the president’s goons, who want to recover the power source. He manages to take them all down non-lethally, but falls off the city in the process.

End Act 1.

Act 2 starts out with Toby in a massive Central New Jersey style trash heap that stretches off as far as the eye can see in all directions, with the city hovering several miles above. He comes to, and is thronged by zombie-bots who want his power, then trapped by a robot dog and captured by some Gamin (look it up), and then has a run-in with the Robotic Revolutionary Front, three renegade ‘bots who are keen on Lenin, but are, alas, hampered by the Three Laws of Robotics, so their terrorist attacks are generally limited to tickling people. As with most revolutionary groups, they’re more about the parliamentary procedures and pamphlets than they are the actual fighting, though given their obvious handicap, I can’t say as I blame them. (“We have seriously looked in to purchasing a feather!”) Rescued by the gamin again, they take him back to their Fagin-like master, voiced by Nathan Lane. Toby adopts the name “Astro” (Given him by the Revolutionary Robots), and falls in with the band of orphan kids that “Fagan” looks after (they don’t call him that, but it’s just easier if we do), and a ‘tween romance kind of grows up between Astro/Toby and a girl who’s obviously supposed to be the local Artful Dodger, but mostly just comes across as kinda’ bitchy.

Astro/Toby turns out to be a genius with electronics, and uses some of his Blue Core energy to reactivate an ancient huge construction ‘bot called ‘Zog. He soon finds out that “Fagan” is rebuilding robots to fight them to the death, and he’s realized for quite some time that Astro is one. His new friends all reject him when they learn this.

Didn’t see that coming.

He throws him in the ring, and tries repeatedly to kill him, until ultimately Zog and Astro come face to face, Zog refuses to fight, and Fagan is dethroned.

Fagan: Did you really think a hundred year old bulldozer from New Jersey was going to take me down?
Zog: [Attacks Fagan]
Fagan: You can’t hurt me! You’re bound by the three laws! It’s been that way for fifty years!
Zog: I’m old school.

Act 2 ends with the president’s men coming to collect Astro, and take him back to the city so they can get the Blue Core out of him, and use him to power the peacekeeper ‘bot.

Act 3 starts with Astro’s ‘dad’ killing him, and then having a change of heart, reviving him, and telling him to run away. The president goes nuts, uses the red core to power the peacekeeper ‘bot, which promptly eats him, and then we end up with an aggregate peacekeeper/president ‘bot who’s completely insane, and runs around trashing the city and fighting Astro. Astro’s friends on the ground recognize the error of their ways (I did see that coming), and fly to the city (A conveniently heretofore unmentioned ability) to help out in the battle royale.

The city damaged and crashing, the president insane, Astro realizes his destiny is to be an utterly selfless hero, and goes to sacrifice himself to save everyone…but will he have to go through with it?

Well, I’m not spoiling that much. Suffice to say there’s a happy - but radically changed - world at the end.

The End.

OBSERVATIONS

I know nothing of Astroboy, really, but I got the very strong suspicion that this film is to its source material as that godawful Emmerich/Devlin “Godzilla” film from ten years back was related to its source material: In short, I suspect, but do not know, that this film will be treated as an anathema to fans of the original. Just a hunch. It’s too American. It’s too slipshod.

That said, you know, this isn’t a terrible little film. My kids enjoyed it, though the younger ones were a bit disturbed by them actually killing of a child in the first act, and having his exact duplicate rejected by his father. Younger kids are going to be put off by that, but it’s not a scary film by any stretch of the imagination. Direction is rather flat, and the action scenes aren’t exactly what you’d call eye popping or inspired, and the entire film isn’t nearly as good as last summer’s surprisingly good “Battle for Terra” http://www.republibot.com/content/movie-review-%E2%80%9C-battle-terra%E2...
but it’s a perfectly adequate romp that’s quite a bit sadder in spots than one would expect for a film of this kind. I enjoyed it, but feel no compunction to ever see it again, and I’m sure I’ll have forgotten huge swaths of it by this time tomorrow. (Especially since tomorrow is a Drinkin’ Day!)

Production design is nice in Metro City, and blandly blighted on the ground. Metro isn’t done as well as the cruise ship city from Wall-E, but it’s kinda’ cool. There’s nothing terribly exciting about the ground. The music is by John Ottman, whom I’ve never heard of before. It starts off in a deliberately Danny Elfman kind of mode, then immediately shifts gears to a kind of James Newton Howard score, a bit like Treasure Planet, then becomes blandly John Williamsy. There’s a nice little fanfare in here, but nothing else really jumped out at me.

Voice talent is all over the place. Nathan Lane is, as always, Nathan Lane, but he’s spot-on, and seeing him play a bad guy for a change was a nice stretch. Nicholas Cage appears to have recorded all his dialog while walking through a parking lot to his car. Bill Nighy, who’s got a wonderful voice, seems to be really fighting with delivery - not everyone can do voice acting, you know - and the always wonderful Eugene Levy is shamefully wasted. Someone named Freddy Highmore is Astro Boy, and he’s nothing to write home about. Donald Sutherland is unexpectedly good as The President, with an offhanded delivery style that undercuts all the crazy things he says. It’s a nice touch, though he can’t really shift gears in to full-on crazy at the end of the film.

I do like how the film is structured, though, even if the first act is overloaded with stuff, and the middle act is kinda’ lax. They do manage some moments of genuine emotion in the last act, however, and that makes up for some of the pacing problems.

Here’s the problem with this film, though - and remember, I’m not condemning it, it’s an enjoyable enough little frivolous romp - it feels derivative of a bunch of other things, none of them, as far as I know, related to Astro Boy himself: Most notably, there’s some obvious Wall-E ripping off going here, with the beautiful people heading off in to the skies, and the earth itself turning in to a pigsty. What’s really curious about this, however, is that they do it for no real point. Wall-E made a comparatively subtle environmental point that wasn’t too offensive, but it was mostly about self-actualization. This movie isn’t really about either. They set up the environmental angle, but there’s no pay off for it, it’s just there with no resolution, nor really any explanation as to how it came to be that way. There’s also a bit of The Iron Giant in here, some Pinocchio, some Oliver Twist, and a curiously vapid swipe at Republicanism.

The President is a jerk, a bit paranoid, unpopular, and his re-election strategy consists in finding someone to start a war with, probably the ground dwellers, since no one cares about them at all. His slogan is “It is not time for a change” (Which I’ll admit is funny). He’s portrayed as kind of a dim bulb, too, and a affably evil guy who has no regard for laws or rules or feelings of anyone but himself. In short, he’s exactly how the more outspoken Democrats see George W. Bush, though president Stone (Get it? Stone? Bush? Huh?) is perhaps a bit better spoken than George was. He’s even got a bald Dick Cheney-like general as a sidekick.

This isn’t a ‘generic jackass politician’ mode we’re looking at here, this is a very *specific* jackass politician that they’re taking their shots at. I’m not the kind of guy to take umbrage if someone takes a shot at a Republican president, I’m not a kneejerk reactionary type. Poke fun all you want, but please, make it funny or at least insightful, and I’ll try to return the favor when I poke fun at YOUR president, ok? Fair’s fair. The problem here isn’t so much that they’re making fun of Georgie, it’s that they’re making fun of Georgie nearly a year after he left office, in a film that they must have known wouldn’t come out until long after he was out of office. What kind of sense does that make? So they pull a few of their punches, I guess in case McCain won, making things a bit broader, but, again, what kind of sense does that make? Everyone and their blind maiden aunt’s dog knew that we were going down in ‘04, so why the hell take all the time and money to make a series of gags that couldn’t help but to make the film dated before it ever even came out? Shouldn’t you, I dunno, do something funny or menacing? I mean, the producers got Donald Sutherland, and they somehow got him to pay attention fer gosh sakes! Shouldn’t they have tried to make better use of him?

So: Confusing political choice there.

That said, there’s no real payoff to it - the Bush Bashing falls flat, and is so ineptly done that I don’t feel it actually detracts from the film, and I doubt five years from now anyone will even realize what they were going for, it’s just that bland.

So: basically a safe, entertaining choice for kids, and a moderately amusing pastime for adults, though not great entertainment by any stretch of the imagination, though, like I said, some of the early scenes might disturb smaller kids. Worth a watch, if you’ve got nothing better to see.

WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS MOVIE?

Unless you’re overprotective of George W. Bush, sure. They do take a swipe, but they mostly fail to contact with it. In the end, it’s entirely ephemeral and doesn’t accomplish much.

[UPDATE 3/6/11: Re-watched this movie a few months back with the Republispawn, who generally liked it much more than I did the first time out. It massively did not hold up, and the only part that any of us liked this time out were the Robot Revolutionaries. Some films you can only watch once, I guess; this one's flaws were vastly more egregious the second time through. There are several shorts on the DVD, mostly about the Revolutionaries, which are mostly kinda' funny, but very, very brief vignettes, and a sequence involving astro that feels like a cut scene, but doesn't fit the continuity of the film.

If you haven't already gotten around to not watching this movie, today might be a good day to not watch it.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to buy a copy of "Pokemon Black"]

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